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Archdiocese chief speaks on Nienstedt probe, clergy abuse plea

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Archbishop Bernard Hebda
Archbishop Bernard Hebda, interim leader of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, spoke during an interview in St. Paul, Minn., July 10, 2015.
Jean Pieri | The St. Paul Pioneer Press via AP

Interim Archbishop Bernard Hebda plans to release an "accounting" of investigations into his predecessor, Archbishop John Nienstedt, and acknowledged that he doesn't yet know how the Twin Cities archdiocese will plead to criminal charges tied to clergy sex abuse.

  "I'm not exactly sure" how the archdiocese will plead to the misdemeanor charges for its role in  failing to protect three sexual abuse victims of ex-priest Curtis Wehmeyer, Hebda, 55, told MPR News in a 10-minute interview Friday following his first weeks running the archdiocese.

  Hebda said he would make the final call, ultimately. "Of course, we want to plead the truth," he said, "and then also to be able to figure out what's correct, and I need a little bit more time to do that."  

Asked if believed the archdiocese was guilty, he said, "I think that would be one of the things that would be decided by a court."  

Hebda, 55, is well known among the Vatican hierarchy. He has spent more than a decade in Rome, first as a student and later as a Vatican official. 

  He was tapped by the Vatican to step in and lead the Twin Cities archdiocese following Nienstedt's resignation in June after two troubled years where he and other archdiocese leaders came under fire repeatedly for protecting priests accused of sexually abusing children.

  Hebda is also facing calls to release findings of investigations into Nienstedt's personal behavior. He called it a complicated question, but indicated that he'll be releasing more information.

  "I realize it's an issue that's very much on the mind of so many of our faithful Catholics and just the community at large," he said. "I think it would be difficult for us to move forward without giving some kind of an accounting."

  Hebda said he wanted to ensure the information release would be "fair and responsible" while working through confidentiality issues for those who "participated in the investigations."

  "We're going to try to be able to share with those who are so interested, and certainly the Catholic faithful and the members of the community, to give some accounting of what it was that the investigation covered ... and what the results would have been," he said.

Explore the full investigation Clergy abuse, cover-up and crisis in the Twin Cities Catholic church

  He did not have a timetable.

  Asked if the faithful would be told of the cost of investigating Nienstedt, Hebda said it would be "a natural thing to share with people ... assuming that we're able to give a good determination of what the costs were."  

Hebda must also decide how to move forward on another issue: monitoring priests accused of sex abuse but who are no longer in ministry.

  Ramsey County Attorney John Choi criticized the monitoring program in announcing the criminal charges against the archdiocese in June.

  Choi called the archdiocese's monitoring program for abusive priests "a sham," adding, "We were falsely led to believe that the leadership structure of the archdiocese had an effective program in place" for monitoring abusive priests.

  The Ramsey County Attorney's Office has also filed a civil motion that would force the archdiocese to stop the alleged illegal behavior. It asks the court to require the archdiocese to fix the conditions that led to the problems, a county attorney's office spokesman said.

  Hebda, however, said that "great strides have already been made" in monitoring abusive priests and added that the archdiocese staff overseeing monitoring has a "very high level of sophistication in working with those priests. I think that the archdiocese in many ways has raised the bar very high for dioceses around the United States in terms of monitoring."

  As he left the interview, though, he acknowledged he didn't know all the details of the monitoring system.

  It's not clear how long Hebda will remain in the Twin Cities. Pope Francis appointed him in June to serve as an apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. It's a temporary job meant to fill the gap between Nienstedt and a new archbishop.

Edited transcript of the interview

BARAN: The archdiocese has said it's committed to transparency and accountability. What I'd like to ask you is: Will you release the findings of the private investigations of Archbishop John Nienstedt? 

HEBDA: It's certainly a complicated question, Madeleine. Since I've arrived here in the Twin Cities and I've been speaking with people, I realize it's an issue that's very much on the mind of so many of our faithful Catholics and just the community at large. I think it would be difficult for us to move forward without giving some kind of an accounting.

BARAN: And an accounting, what does that mean? Does that mean saying, 'Here's what the investigation found out?'

HEBDA: At the moment, I've been studying the materials and trying to figure out what's a way in which we're able to do that so it's fair and responsible. As many people have noted already, there are obviously going to be questions of confidentiality for people that participated in the investigations, so we're going to try to be able to share with those who are so interested, and certainly the Catholic faithful and the members of the community, to give some accounting of what it was that the investigation covered and how it is that, and what the results would have been.

BARAN: Any kind of time table on that?

HEBDA: I'm still working through the documents. It's going to take me a little bit of time. I'm really grateful that I have a little bit of time at the moment to be able to work through that. I know it has to be a priority. It's certainly a priority for me. So I'm hoping that I'll be able to respond better to that question the next time you ask.

BARAN: Will parishioners be told how much was spent on these investigations?

HEBDA: I think that, as I said, I'm not exactly sure what the parameters will be, but I think that that would be a natural thing to be able to share with people.

BARAN: So will you share it?

HEBDA: Assuming that we're able to give a good determination for what the costs were.

BARAN: Has the archdiocese turned over everything to police and prosecutors that they've asked for?

HEBDA: In the time that I've been here, nothing's been asked for. We haven''t had that situation. My understanding is we're, everything that, we've been working very closely with the authorities. And also obviously there's always a judge or a court that's able to decide those things as well.

BARAN: Would you say to the lawyers and the other people who work in the chancery: Look, if the police or the prosecutors ask you for any information, please turn it over?

HEBDA: I think obviously we have to be cooperative. We also have to recognize that there are some documents that are privileged. And that's very fair I think from both sides, and so certainly being cognizant of the parameters of the law, that we want to be able to cooperate fully. 

BARAN: The first hearing in the criminal case is next week. This is the case filed in Ramsey County that charges the archdiocese with six criminal counts for failing to protect children from now the former priest Curtis Wehmeyer. How will the archdiocese plead? (Note: The archdiocese is not expected to enter a plea in next week's initial appearance.)

HEBDA: I'm not exactly sure. We certainly have a little bit of time to consider that as well. I know the matter is being studied very carefully. I'm very comfortable with the counsel we have representing us, and I know that we've been in dialogue as well with county authorities.

BARAN: How are you going to decide how to plead?

HEBDA: It's going to be the same way that anybody would decide. You really have to carefully look at the material, you have to figure out what's ... Of course we want to plead the truth, and then also to be able to figure out what's correct, and I need a little bit more time to do that.

BARAN: Who makes this decision about how to plead? Are you the person who will make that final call?

HEBDA: Absolutely. At the moment, that's the burden on my shoulders, but I don't do that on my own. I think I'm receiving very good counsel. I know there are many people that are very interested in not only the archdiocesan situation in this case, but in the life of our local church. So I'm comfortable that I'm getting good advice.

BARAN: Do you think that the archdiocese is guilty?

HEBDA: I think that would be one of the things that would be decided by a court. I certainly have read with great attention the charges that were leveled against the archdiocese. I think that responses are being prepared on each of those issues, and I think that it will be up to the courts to decide that.

BARAN: Moving now to bankruptcy, one of the other big challenges you're facing. So far, the archdiocese has accumulated about $2 million in legal costs, and that's a lot of money for the archdiocese. That represents, according to the bankruptcy filing, about seven percent of the archdiocese's total net assets. Of course, the archdiocese has the legal right to spend that much money on lawyers. But my question for you is do you personally think that it's morally right?

HEBDA: That's a good question. And one of the things that I've been learning about bankruptcy as well is that it really does enable an organization, in this case the church, to move forward. And we certainly really rely on the judge in that case to be able to determine what's reasonable, and what not only helps the archdiocese, but also the creditors. And so as we come to see that there is really a responsibility to our creditors as well, and I think that to be mindful of that and to certainly be sure that there's no waste, we want to make sure that we have the best counsel that's available. And I'm once again trusting on the advice that I'm getting, but also know that the courts are very attentive to cost, and if there were something that weren't reasonable, that they would be letting us know that as well. But in terms of the moral analysis, I have great interest obviously in making sure that the work of the church continues in the archdiocese, and so certainly to be able to do whatever it takes to be able to assure that we're able to meet our obligations and to be able to continue. Unfortunately in a litigious society where we need very, very fine lawyers, all who are involved, so that rights are recognized and respected, it's costly.

BARAN: Over the course of the last two years, I've spoken to more than a hundred victims of clergy sex abuse, and a lot of them are so deeply harmed by what happened, not just by the trauma of the abuse, but the betrayal that they feel from the Catholic Church. Some of them have struggled with marital problems, drug and alcohol problems, employment problems, mental health problems. Given all of this suffering, why not just say: 'You know what? We're going to look under every nook and cranny, we're going to try to find every asset we can to give to these victims,' rather than go through this protracted legal proceeding?

HEBDA: Well, really I think that the protracted legal proceeding that you described is really the way in which we're able to go under every rock, and it's a way of making sure that we're doing that in an equitable way, and unfortunately its very costly, but even to make sure that we're really making available those assets and that eventually they're going to be divided in a way that's just.

BARAN: Another thing you're inheriting is this issue about what to do about monitoring. There are a number of priests who are no longer in ministry, priests of this archdiocese, who are living in communities in Minnesota who've been accused of abuse, in some cases admitted to abusing children.  This has been the subject of great scrutiny and concern, about the archdiocese's monitoring problem. Ramsey County Attorney John Choi most recently was criticizing the monitoring program. I'm wondering what changes you think are needed to make sure that these priests, in some cases who have admitted to abusing children, are not harming children in our community.

HEBDA: I would say that great strides have already been made in that area. So some of the difficulties that have been pointed out before with monitoring have already been corrected. I think it is a great challenge, not only in the church, but in society at large. So trying to figure out how it is that we help people to move beyond these situations while at the same time making sure that we're, as best we can creating safe environments where we're able to protect our children.

BARAN: What are the strides that have already been made?

HEBDA: I think that, for example, the staff that has been assembled here to deal with those issues. I think that there's a very high level of sophistication in working with those priests. I think that the archdiocese in many ways has raised the bar very high for dioceses around the United States in terms of monitoring.

BARAN: The prosecutor's going to disagree with that. Would you commit today to sending a letter to the families who just live on the same block as some of these priests who have admitted to abusing kids? Would you agree to notify them?

HEBDA: I haven't had a chance even to speak with the prosecutor about that or about the difficulties that are there.